Friday 20 May
I bloody well love this place. For dinner — wine, bread, olives and feta. For breakfast — coffee, pastry, olives (and dates) and feta.
And after England, Austria, and Croatia, each of which has its charm, I would be happy never to look at another pork sausage.
This tale of sunny Crete begins by chance on a misty London night. Some days and many miles ago, late on our last night in London, we ducked out of the rain into The Mitre, a pub just down the street from our hotel. Even near closing time, we were greeted graciously by the staff, including our waitress, Dora. Trying to place her accent we failed to reach consensus, so we asked. Greek, she said. And of course we had to tell her that we would soon be in Crete, and, of course, she had to tell us that she used to live there and had attended school there. So, of course, we had to ask her where we should go and where we should stay. As she rattled off her thoughts on the matter, her accent became more and more pronounced and more and more impenetrable and so I cast about for a bar napkin and a pen and asked her to write down her recommendations.
The napkin hasn’t survived the trip, but a snapshot of it remains with us and, simply on her say so, we find ourselves in Rethymnon, Crete, on the north coast.
We landed at Herklion, a major city farther east but also on the north coast and the major airport not controlled by the military. Since we wanted to see the island, we rented a car and drove about an hour to Rethymnon, our first exposure to the famously aggressive Greek driving habit. We were no more than five minutes out of town on the major coastal road, which clings to the side of steep mountains that descend down to the sea, on a steep climbing curve with the cliff to our left and a steep drop to the rocks far below on our right, a car darts past us on the left, weaves in and out of oncoming traffic, everyone swerving left and right like the start of a race, and disappears around the next curve. Within the next ten miles, this strategy was repeated multiple times and we soon realized that it is, if not the norm, at least common.
The roof of nearly every building sprouted a solar panel and multiple antennas of an unfamiliar dimension, the landscape was dry and devoid of anything that we might call a forest, and the contemporary houses were stone and concrete and all right angles. Finding our way into Rethymnon, one of the several large cities along the northern coast, we circled around the Fortezza and parked at the old Venetian harbor. Walking uphill into the old part of the city, we saw everywhere young people with tattoos and backpacks lounging at the seaside cafes or wandering through the stone alleyways and remarked that here we were senior to everyone whereas in our resort hotel on the peninsula north of Dubrovnik we were the youngsters. I thought to myself, this is where I would have been forty years ago, bumming about Europe on five dollars a day and looking for the end of the earth, the best sunset. Back then I thought the best sunset was just over the next hill. Now I know that the best sunsets are to be found aloft.
We parked along the seawall and walked up the gentle incline into the sixteenth century. We penetrated the narrow stone alleyways of the old town, far too narrow for a car. Cats and little dogs lounged in sunny spots on the narrow stone entryways of shops. Small cafes and restaurants and shops lined the twisting and turning alleys, each sharing a wall with the next like small townhouses. Nothing resembling a hotel appeared. We turned down one alley and the next. I could almost feel Adam reaching for Trip Advisor. We walked up Arkadiou from the waterfront and harbor, turned down Damvergi, no more than a tiny alley wide enough for the two of us to walk abreast, turned back and a little further turned up Salaminos, a little broader, perhaps enough for a single vehicle, and a little more promising, but saw nothing resembling a hotel. Two short blocks in we came across a cafe, open to the street, that shared the name of the hotel that Dora had scribbled on that bar napkin in the Mitre. We paused just long enough for a genial man wearing a bar apron to beckon us in. “Sit down,” he said. “Let me get you a drink. Rest.” We looked at each other skeptically. “We are looking for our hotel,” we said. “Of course you are. You have found it. But first have a drink. You look tired.” Indeed, we were. A long flight from Dubrovnick. A bit of a kerfuffle with icing over Greece. Some nervousness when Athens Control couldn’t seem to find an airliner. (This was mere days after the EgyptianAir flight had gone missing over the Mediterranean, not far from Crete.) Cadging a rental car at the busy Heraklion airport and the beautiful, exhilerating drive along the coast to Rethymnon. We were tired. And wondering, perhaps, if we had made a mistake chasing to the far end of Crete in search of a hotel recommended to us by chance by a barmaid we would never see again thousands of miles away. But we acquised to his good cheer. I wish I could remember now what he served us, but in my memory it was delightful. And, in fact, we were in the restaurant attached to the and sharing a name with the Palazzino di Corina, where, it turns out, Dora was well-remembered.
A few hours later, our bags were fetched from the car and stowed in our rooms, up a twisting wooden stairway to the second floor. We were minimally but sufficiently refreshed from our long day. And we were seated by invitation at a corner table in the restaurant, one of only perhaps six or eight tables, each set with silver and linen.
The awning that served as a roof was rolled back, exposing the deep blue Mediterranean sky, and we were dining on squash blossoms stuffed with Greek cheese made wonderful with herbs and drinking Greek wine and chatting occasionally with our host, who tells us that he is Albanian, speaks several languages, of course, and has been the manager of this magical establishment for years – and of course remembers Dora and wonders what has become of her. As now do we.
As our meal wound down toward its conclusion, our host served us with a flourish a complimentary dessert, Greek pastry bathed in honey, and glasses of raki, a clear liquor made from the solids remaining after grapes are crushed for wine.
It is a traditional drink in Turkey, popular in Greece and some of the Baltic states and it is pure firewater, known to be as much as 90% alcohol, and surprisingly drinkable given its provenance and proof. I came to learn that this digestif is common along with a complimentary dessert in Crete, a delightful custom that typifies the generosity of the culture.
So, on Dora’s recommendation, we are in the Palazzino di Corina down an alleyway in the old town of Rethymnon, Crete.
Been here three days. It is sometime just before eleven in the evening and the six restaurants within forty yards of the front door are full of customers, young people walking the streets, older people in the cafes. The nightime temperature is perfect, balmy, tropical, slightly cool, a kiss of salt from the Mediterranean Sea, a very slight breeze hardly enough to feel on your exposed skin. The soft lights spill out of the cafes onto the stone streets. Seating is mostly outside on the stones or the sidewalk, but the distinction between inside and outside is blurred to indistinct here. No restaurant closes its door. Most seem to have no door. There may be a few tables inside, just to make a claim on the name and the diner but most tables are outside, under lights, open to the deep blue night sky with an umbrella or an awning just in case of rain. Outside of each establishment a menu is posted and a proprietor or host stands on the sidewalk to greet, sometimes to graciously accost, passersby and cajole them into taking a seat. The distinction between a bar, a cafe, and a restaurant is also indistinct – every establishment seems able to provide anything from a glass of wine to a four-course meal. I wonder sometimes, because so many restaurants are packed into each of the small streets and alleys and each has a menu that could keep one happily trying new dishes for weeks – I sometimes wonder if there is one great kitchen somewhere back in the alley that prepares all the food that flows out to the street through the many different establishments. However it happens, the food is uniformly splendid: creative, fresh, beautiful on the plate. The service, after the occasional aggressive sales pitch on the sidewalk, is uniformly gracious and friendly. The tables at the simplest tavern are set with linen. The lighting is romantic, soft and warm and never too bright to drown out the moon and stars. And the night air is sweet. Simply sweet.
I love this place.